Monday, January 7, 2013

Miss Level Teaspoon of 1896—The Lady Who Taught America to Cook

Working sitting on a stool due to her disability, Fanny Farmer showed a young student the mysteries of the measuring cup and spoons.

On January 7, 1896 a book that revolutionized American kitchen and changed the lives of women was published for the first time. The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book was compiled and written by the school’s 41 year old director, Fannie Farmer.  It was comprehensive in scope, and well organized.  Packed with detailed, step-by-step directions and specific measurements of ingredients, it allowed home cooks—both professionals and housewives—to create consistent meals that turned out the same every time.  Not only was it an immediate best seller, but Farmer kept it up to date through 21 more editions in her lifetime.  It is still kept up to date with regular editions by Farmer’s successors and is published today as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook—the one cookbook found in most homes.
Born in Boston, Massachusetts on March 23, 1857, Farmer was the eldest daughter of a master printer and his wife.  She grew up in Medford where, despite their class, her parents prepared her for a college education.  It was a cultured, Unitarian home.  But at age 15 Fannie’s dreams for higher education were dashed when she suffered a paralytic stroke.  She was bed ridden for over a year and only slowly recovered the ability to walk, although she had a limp there after.  As she was able, she began to help her mother around the house.  Eventually she developed a special interest in cooking.  When her mother opened the home to boarders, Fannie’s outstanding cooking attracted more roomers than they could handle.
To help bring cash income to the home, Farmer went to work as a cook in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Shaw, a wealthy and influential family.  Recognizing not only her gift in the kitchen, but Farmers eagerness to learn, Mrs. Shaw encouraged her to enroll in the Boston Cooking School, an establishment for professional household cooks operated by Carrie M. Dearborn which emphasized not only kitchen procedures, but scientific nutrition, the chemistry of cooking, sanitation and household management.  Farmer was 30 years old when she started at the school and was soon the star pupil and Dearborn’s top assistant.   After she graduated in 1889, she became assistant director and the school’s top instructor.  When Dearborn died, Farmer became Principle 1891.
Since 1884 the school had used a moderately successful cookbook Mrs. Lincoln's Boston Cook Book, by Mary J. Lincoln.  But Farmer was dissatisfied and set out to revise it.  The effort took years and became, essentially a whole new creation.  Key was Farmer’s insistence on strict adherence to precise measurements.  “A cupful is measured level ... A tablespoonful is measured level. A teaspoonful is measured level.” she insisted.
In 1902 Farmer left the Boston School to found her own establishment, Miss Farmer's School of Cookery.  She soon expanded her interests, and the school curriculum beyond basic cooking skills and kitchen management for the gentlewoman to nutrition, and particularly to preparation of palatable food for sick and infirm.  She considered this the most important work of her lifetime.  She published Food and Cookery for the Sick and Convalescent which was so well regarded that she lectured at Harvard Medical School on diet and nutrition. 
Farmer’s influence spread through a regular column in the leading magazine Woman's Home Companion which ran for nearly ten years.  She also lectured widely and contributed articles to daily newspapers and other periodicals. Although she suffered another disabling stroke, after a period of convalescence she returned to her rigorous schedule. 
Farmer gave her last lecture from a wheel chair just three weeks before she died in Boston on January 15, 1915 at the age of 58.  She was interred at historic Mt. Auburn Cemetery alongside Boston’s literary greats, important statesmen, and Unitarian elite.

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